Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Watch out for footloose predators

David Harker, chief executive of Citizens Advice, responds to last week’s posting by Crispin Passmore, director of the Community Legal Service

Whilst I admire the passion with which Crispin pursues a strategy of improving access to advice by means of a winner takes all bidding exercise, I think it’s misconceived and, combined with the impact of the new LSC contract, may wreak havoc across the advice sector in England and Wales. The possible closure of Hull CAB, with its 70-year history of serving its community, and the financial instability of some law centres following the introduction of the fixed fee regime, may be the start of the destruction of much valuable social infrastructure.

Frustration with the failures of Community Legal Service Partnerships, combined with an unquestioning belief in the power of contestable markets, has led to an error of judgement. Wishing to see ‘three, four five or more top quality bids’ in each area, favours footloose predators with the resources to bid and to take the occasional loss without damage not evolving cash strapped community agencies for whom failure may spell disaster.

The solutions which Crispin and the LSC have adopted may be wrong but the underlying analysis is correct. What he describes as ‘fragmented services presenting an un-navigable advice maze to clients faced with domestic violence, illegal eviction and poverty’ does need to change. That’s recognised by Citizens Advice and our bureaux across the country. To make his point, he exaggerates the degree of fragmentation in Hull, where the CAB had developed new specialist quality marked services in employment and immigration, to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of solicitors from LSC contracts.

Across the country here is an immense amount of fantastic work being done by some amazingly committed and dedicated people, many of them volunteers. The question is how to build on that to achieve improved access for more people. The answer is not to do what may well happen in Hull and to destroy existing institutions in pursuit of an unproven contention that new providers to the area can do it better.

That’s why there’s been such a fierce reaction by local people, community leaders and the media to the announcement that the partnership between a private sector company, A4E, and a regional firm of solicitors Howells is the preferred bidder. It’s not that the CAB is a bad loser but it’s the genuine reaction of a community that fears it might lose a valued and trusted service.

The two principle funders of local Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales are local authorities, which last year provided £66 million (46%), and the Legal Services Commission which provided £30 million (20%). These are very different institutions with differing objectives. The LSC’s objectives are narrow, whilst those of local authorities are wider and embrace the concept of community well being. Pooling these two sources of funding and devising a tender specification which adequately captured both sets of objectives is a major challenge which hasn’t been done successfully. The result is that insufficient value is placed on the role of CAB and others in creating viable and cohesive communities, using volunteers (some of whom may have previously been clients) acting as a centre for the development of new national and local initiatives like financial education, credit unions, and using client evidence locally, regionally and nationally to change policies. Destroying these institutions impoverishes the lives of the communities they serve. I suspect that this dawning realisation is leading councillors in Hull to think again and causing many local authorities to think long and hard before joining the world of CLACs and CLANs. Perhaps it will also lead national government to reflect upon the contradiction between its policies for strengthening communities and the marketisation of legal aid.

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